Write like a Pro
Over the past five semesters at Zeppelin University I have gotten increasingly interested in how people write. And when I say write, I mean write scientifically. This is the first write-up in a series of articles in which I will share what I have learned.
This article will cover my writing setup. I have been obsessed with it since I got into university and think that it can help students to become a better writers.
It is no secret that most freshmen start out with a Microsoft Office license and that is what they stick to for the next four years. It is also no secret that most of these students will never use Word’s built-in outliner or reference management tools.
To a certain degree universities are to blame. There simply are not that many instructors that take the time to introduce their students to the very basics of scientific writing. During my first semester I was fortunate enough to attend a class covering nothing but the formal framework that enables science. It made me aware that scientific discourse relies almost exclusively on writing. You have to play by the rules if you want to be heard. The truth is that structure, formatting and proper references can be just as important as content.
The following tools will help you with these three aspects of scientific writing.
Tree is a hidden gem in the overcrowded market of commercial outliners. Its standout feature is a horizontal view that makes it incredibly easy to structure even large amounts of information. After I have done my initial research I enter everything that seems relevant to me into Tree and only then begin to put things into order.
LaTex Distribution: MacTeX
Most students have never heard of LaTex. It is a professional typesetting system that is the de-facto standard for scientific publishing. But even someone who does not want to be published can profit from using it for their writing. For example LaTeX saves me a lot of time and trouble on a day-to-day basis because I do not have to worry about
MacTex is to the go-to LaTex distribution for Mac users. It is a package that contains everything you need to get started with professional typesetting through LaTex. The installation is very straight forward and uses up around 3GB of disk space. After a reboot you are ready to go.
Text Editor: Sublime Text + LaTeXing
Sublime Text is a powerful text editor that I have been using for all my writing since I discovered LaTeXing almost a year ago. LaTeXing is a commercial extension for Sublime Text that makes working with LaTeX documents infinitely more comfortable. Among its features are syntax highlighting and auto-completion as well as the ability to link to remote reference libraries.
Reference Management: BibTex + BibDesk
Edit BibTex bibliography files in Sublime Text is a bit tedious. Mostly because there are so many custom fields and rules that are associated with the different kinds of entries that can go into a bibliography. This is where BibDesk comes to the rescue – think of it as a graphical user interface that allows you to edit BibDesk files through simple forms.
What is even more important here, is that there was someone who early on in my studies took their time to explain the biggest advantage of reference management to me. Namely, that it allows you to create proper references and bibliographies with virtually no additional effort. I see so many people who despair at the end of the semester because they have to factor in two days just to look up references.
Enough said for today. I hope the tools and ideas highlighted in this short writeup will be as useful to you as they are to me. My setup does not quite look like the romanticised version shown in the cover photo, but it helps me to get work done.
Credit for the cover photo goes to zeitfaenger.at